Mrs. Zimnoski and Her Vegetables
When I lived in Manhattan, I spent time each summer at a family farm in eastern Long Island. The farm was a refuge for me, a balance to my life in the city. It was a place to dream in … with cornfields, wild flowers, and a road you could walk on forever. And each year, before I’d leave, I’d visit Mrs. Zimnoski, an older woman who lived one farm away.
Sometimes I believed the visits were for her. She must be lonely, I told myself. Twenty years a widow. But no matter why I went, I always left feeling better, carrying home two bags of her just-picked tomatoes.
Each visit was much like the other. I’d walk past her vegetable garden, ring the bell on her white kitchen door, and peer through the window to see her approaching. Short and buxom, she’d be wearing a large flowered housedress and holding a broom or wooden spoon since she was always busy doing something — cooking, tending her garden, or cleaning the house. Soft grey curls framed her sun-wrinkled face, and bifocals gave her round eyes a look of constant surprise.
“Whoooo?” she’d call out, her voice rising in question. Then, opening the door, she’d exclaim, “What! Missus!” and we’d collapse into hugs with her chirping like a bird.
Born in Poland, but living here since she was ten, she still spoke with a heavy accent and mixed her “he’s” and “she’s” with confusing abandon. It was like being at the opera: I’d get the drift of her stories, but they were clouded in mystery, never fully known.
When I’d take my two children along to see her, she’d always find some raisin cookies still warm from the oven, which she’d serve with tall glasses of tart cherry juice. “I tell you story,” she’d say to them, “of when I been little goil.” Then she’d furrow her brow and squint her eyes before recounting pieces of her childhood: growing up on a dairy farm in Poland, meeting Russians and gypsies, witnessing a war. And although my children understood her even less than I did, her excitement and laugher soon had them laughing too.
Sometimes I’d take my friends there to meet her, and she’d be so pleased to have all this “young” company that she’d bring out and pour for them her dandelion wine. “Is good?” she’d ask eagerly, as they savored its honey-lemon taste. “Mmmm,” they’d respond and ask how it’s made.
It was a story I never tired of hearing: Mrs. Zimnoski, every spring, bending her small, stout body and picking with fingers gnarled from arthritis hundreds of dandelions from the fields nearby. Then, carrying them home in buckets to her kitchen, where she’d boil and ferment them to create her old-time brew. It was an image I cherished, for it let me know that no matter how bad the world might seem, something good and right was enduring — and nearby.
Although I’d known her for more than a decade, we never spoke of inner things; we didn’t even use first names. It took years of visits to learn that she was christened Marcella, but since she insisted on calling me “Missus,” I always called her Mrs. Zimnoski. Only once did she ask me anything personal:
“The children’s father, he’s good to them?”
“He never hit you?’
“So why you get divorced?”
If only life were that simple, I thought, and wondered if it could be and if, for her, it was. But all I knew for sure that was simple was the way she lived, the same hard work with which she structured her days, the focus on what is and what has to be done, with no time to worry about what could or should have been.
I guess she was my teacher, someone I was meant to meet. There was one summer, though, when I almost didn’t see her. I was too busy searching for answers. Not simple answers, but things like meaning, certainty, and strength. I walked miles on that country road, trying only to silence the chatter in my mind. The farm’s magic hadn’t worked. And I hadn’t seen Mrs. Zimnoski.
I was feeling too anxious for idle chatter, too self-involved for cookies and juice. Still, I finally decided to visit since I didn’t know how soon I’d be back. So I stopped by, ate some of her fresh sauerkraut, and listened to her talk.
“Look!” she commanded and showed me a cauliflower just picked from her garden. “Look how beautiful!” she said. It did look beautiful, jewel-like, with its creamy white florets and pale green leaves, the brown soil still clinging to its roots.
She went on to tell me the four vegetables Farmer Dabrowski said could keep you from getting cancer. “Cabbage, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts … what else he tell me? I not remember what she say.”
I was only half-listening, too distracted to respond.
“Broccoli? … Onions?” she mused, half talking to herself, half talking to me. “Beets?” I said, somewhat soothed by this conversation.
“Beets,” I repeated, looking out the kitchen window to potato fields beyond.
“Cabbage,” Mrs. Zimnoski murmured, counting the litany on her fingers.
I realized we were talking vegetables, yet not really talking at all. It was as if we had entered together some country meditation, where the mantra was “cabbage, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, and beets.” And for a few minutes, my problems lifted, and all the voices in my mind were stilled.
Perhaps it was her presence — this older woman, strong and content, and as no-nonsense and substantial as the vegetables she named. I don’t know. I only know that for a few minutes, the voices in my mind were stilled, as I rested in the goodness and clarity of vegetables.
Then, time to go. Hugs and chirping until I left: feeling better, as always, and carrying home her ripest tomatoes.